Thursday, January 28, 2010

the delights of (ancient) Roman cookery

Current work: revisions on French Book 2
Listening to: Bach
Reading: next on TBR

Daughter has a ‘Roman’ day today at Norwich Castle, as part of the class's topic work. She’s looking forward to learning how to make a torc. And their packed lunch is meant to be as close to authentic Roman food as possible.

Daughter is in my office, scanning my bookshelves. ‘You’ve got a book on Roman cookery.’ Ye-es. ‘So we could make honey cakes, if there’s a recipe in there.’ OK, ma petite, we'll do that. (Thinks: uh-oh, deadline. Thinks: work late rather than disappoint my child.)

Now, does this request come on Monday or Tuesday, so I can have the necessary ingredients delivered with my weekly shop on Wednesday morning? No. It comes yesterday morning. (Rolls eyes. Must teach children about planning ahead.)

Luckily I was waiting for my ed’s comments on how I intended to fixed French Duo 2, so I had time to go through the book and pick out half a dozen possible recipes. (Some were - how shall I put it? - interesting. Did you know that placenta is actually a cheese and pastry pie? Similar to the Greek tyropitakia. But this is a case where I'd rather not know the name of what I was eating...)

Anyway, while we were waiting to pick up son, daughter went through the pages I’d marked with a post-it and decided to make Honey Cake (enkhytoi) and Poppy Seed Biscuits (laterculi). Was quite relieved that she decided not to do the one with spelt flour as Sainsbury’s didn’t have any, and as it was only 2 degrees and very wet I wasn’t in the mood to trek to Waitrose. Barley flour was a complete no-no (think I’d have to get that online from a specialist). And finding wheat flakes… not the processed stuff, the healthy stuff. You’d think the local health food shops would sell it, wouldn’t you? But then it meant six hours soaking in honey… and time wasn’t on my side. Much as I love my daughter, I am not going to be baking at 11pm. I am a lark. I stop talking sense after 10pm.

The honey cake had very simple ingredients: eggs, honey, flour. But it took a long, long time to whisk eggs and honey by hand until it was very thick and fluffy! (And my arms really ache this morning, including muscles I may have forgotten I had.) This is the result. (And, despite son's assertations, this was not burned and it did not sink - it's meant to be flattish and there's a lot of dark runny honey in there, hence the colour.)



The poppy seed biscuits were an interesting concept – a pastry shell filled with ground almonds, poppy seeds, sesame seeds and honey. I was expecting the filling to be stickier, so deviated from the recipe a tad to make it slightly stickier (and therefore easier to put inside the pastry shells).


I thought they were a bit dry (owing to the wholemeal flour, perhaps), but I could imagine children soaking them in honey, or bored matrons dipping them in whatever the Roman equivalent of Madeira was. (There are at least two historical novelists I’m expecting to come here and comment, being Very Wise Women who know about such things.)

Dear, lovely ed: this is why I haven’t actually got any further than thinking about fixing the book, but it will be with you on Monday morning, because I have a photoshoot at lunchtime for my very exciting bit of PR. Please note that I have moved lunch with my friend today, so instead of skiving off and talking books and eating banned substances (whimpers at thought of garlic dough balls) I am chained to my desk and being a Very Good, Hardworking Author...

14 comments:

Jan Jones said...

Kate, kids always, but always leave requests for things for tomorrow for school until the last minute.

Well done you for rising magnificently to the occasion.

Michelle Styles said...

They look good. And recipes were never precise. There was no Delia Smith, so cooks adapted the best they could. And aren't you pleased with modern equipment?
And the poppy seed biscuits could be dunked in Falerian wine if one had the money... Wine with spices and , basically mulled wine was very popular at Roman bars.
Wine though was always cut with water in Roman society. The Celt drank it unmixed which was considered gauche. And there were several different types including a dessert wine.
You also had mead or fermented honey water

Kate Hardy said...

Jan - yeah, don't they just? (I still remember "I need a Dalek outfit and it has to be home made. And I have to wear it to school tomorrow for book day." Cue spray paint, polystrene balls, a bin liner and some scary glue... which said it worked on polystyrene but lied!)

Kate Hardy said...

Michelle - I fiddle with recipes anyway, so I found myself thinking, 'Hmm, these proportions are about right, these need tweaking' etc.

Modern equipment - well, I used a balloon whisk and I'm achy and grumpy now and muttering about why don't I have an electric hand whisk? (Answer: because I don't need one.)

But yes, the rest would be so time-consuming. Chopping the almonds and then grinding them in a pestle and mortar - bless you, Sainsbury's, for selling them ready-ground.

I do wonder if those cakes were cooked like bread in an oven (as the recipe suggested) or like a pancake (was very little flour-to-egg ratio - that surprised me). Given that it reminded me of certain Greek puddings, I can imagine it soaked in honey.

I knew you'd know about the drinks. Thank you :)

Michelle Styles said...

The Romans did not really have ovens. They would either use the baker's oven or more likely a device that is a bit like a dutch oven so they could cook on the stove top.
Romans (particularly those living in Rome or in a city such a s Pompeii) tended to eat out. Hence the little bars on each corner...
They did have slaves! But the giant mortar and pestle was in near constant use.
I do have an electric hand whip btw. It came with my hand held blender...

Sharon said...

The wedding cake I made recently I had to make entirely by hand. Beating the sugar and the butter was a (long) fag - but the end result curiously satisfying.

I rarely follow recipes, but when I do there's always a sense of alchemy about it all....

Caroline Storer said...

Now I may be wrong here but when I was at school we never got to bake Roman cakes or half the interesting things children seem to do at school these days! I'm thinking that you enjoyed it as much as DD - I know I would have. Take care. Caroline x

Carol Townend said...

That is fascinating! You will have me digging out some medieval recipes next. I bet people were more creative given the untensils they had to cook with than we can imagine today!

Kate Hardy said...

Michelle - I would definitely have a kitchen maid to whisk the eggs...

Poor Romans, having to eat out and not having the sheer joy of messing about in a kitchen.

Kate Hardy said...

Sharon - I fiddle with recipes. They're guidelines rather than set in stone, for me - and I love, love, LOVE messing about in the kitchen.

Kate Hardy said...

Caroline - they have far more fun nowadays! The goodies went down well with the class, apparently, so DD was pleased with herself when she came home. (Her torc was very sweet, too.)

I remember messing about in the kitchen with my mum. We'd open a recipe book at random, eyes closed, and pick out a recipe - and if we didn't have the ingredients, we'd improvise. DD likes to choose beforehand rather than do it at random, but is happy to swap ingredients about. DS would rather just be taster :)

Kate Hardy said...

Carol - I have several Medieval cookbooks :) I'm tempted.

(And I'm still grumpy that I couldn't find ANYWHERE in Sussex last summer that had Sussex Pond Pudding on the menu...)

Lacey Devlin said...

Wow to the Roman food and I think your editor will give you brownie points for chaining yourself to your desk :)

Kate Hardy said...

Lacey - thanks :) And I've been chained all weekend, so I do hope she likes what she's going to get later in the week...